Friday, November 23, 2007

Islam, Wasta, and the Changing Roles of Women

What's refreshing about Kuwait is that challenges to tradition - and status quo - are openly discussed in the opinion pages of Kuwait’s two English-language dailies The Arab Times and The Kuwait Times. Muna al-Fuzai is a devout Muslim woman journalist who waves the flag for anyone she deems under-represented. In recent editorials she has openly debated against Kuwait's pro-male dominant paradigm on issues of maids and rape, absurdly spoiled children, graft within the government, nepotism and "wasta" - the assumed benign practice of using influence or bribery to bypass the system. I have never met this woman – but I’d like to. What drives her to risk possible reprimands from her family, or is there no risk? Kuwait is making progress in terms of human rights very quickly for a country under Sharia Law. Women drive, they vote, they are highly educated (often in engineering and medicine), and the Kuwaiti Ambassador to Geneva recently encouraged women to seek seats in Parliament and become more involved in Kuwait’s legislative process. Yet many remain fully covered in public, and once married, live a dull existence with maids to cook and clean for them, au pairs to raise their children, and nothing but time on their hands. Internet Blogs and Opinion pages are heated with the debate over Kuwait’s proposed reinstatement of a curfew prohibiting women from leaving the home after 8 PM, under the auspices of protecting them from increasingly male violence. A few of the western men I’ve met here are disgusted by Kuwait’s treatment of women. What these men don’t recognize is that, at least in Kuwait, these issues are debated and discussed openly – quite unlike in their Wahabbist neighbor to the south.

There is brand of western chivalry in the American men I meet here that irritates me in its ignorance, until I realize that I’ve been guilty of the same before I came to the Arab world. American men erupt when I wear long skirts and long-sleeved blouses, wondering “why the hell I’ve gone native.” Of course, they aren’t the targets of the hard, disdainful stares, the hissed curses uttered under breath sweet with sheesha, or sometimes (though rarely) spat upon. It’s easy for us to become belligerent on another’s behalf, when we don’t personally pay the price for violating tradition.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Kuwait's Broken Families

With typically three and often four generations of Kuwaitis living under the same roof, it's difficult to perceive an anti-family attitude in the culture of this wealthy oil state tucked between the deserts of Saudi and the turmoil in Iraq. Yet for the Southeast Asian expatriate workers who constitute nearly 60% of Kuwait's population - and the breath that feeds her thriving oil economy - living and working in Ku8 tortures their loved ones. Largely from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India, this portion of the expat populace ekes a living on about 100KD (Kuwaiti Dinar, 4KD = US$1 as of 13 Nov 2007) each month. By law, no expat may bring a spouse or child into the country unless s/he earns 250 KD/month. And NOT collectively. So, a two-income household where one spouse earns 245 KD and the other earns 245 KD still cannot meet the income requirements. I work every day with men who left their families 5, 10, or even 15 years ago to come to Kuwait for jobs in the burgeoning service sector (drivers, waiters, housekeepers). They work hard to manage one trip home each year, and their marriages suffer for it. They barely know their sons and daughters, but earning enough to keep their children in school is a price they gladly pay. Until yesterday, I'd only heard rumor of this policy, but Muna al-Fuzai's column in yesterday's Kuwait Times confirmed this ( A mother's deprivation of rights! ). Rage and resentment - long quelled beneath the brilliant smiles and easy demeanors of these critical cogs in Ku8's machinery - is now coming to the surface, and Ku8 will likely have to remedy the situation soon. For many, the income policy is interpreted as blatant racism that belies the sentiment "Come, clean our toilets and nanny our children, but don't plan to have a rich life outside the workplace." Today, with another story on the demise of the family in Kuwait, it feels as if a small social crisis is simmering in this otherwise safe and somewhat sleepy Arab nation ( Majority of families live in alienation ).

When you create an industrial society that cannot meet its own workforce needs (only 30% of Kuwait's population are actually Kuwaiti), your expat Laborers bring both the exotic (curry, cappuccino, and cardamom) and the unexpected (belly-dancing, un-shrouded women, and Urdu). Like every nation before it that experienced a surge in "foreigners" - and even currently, with Italy's increasing (and derided) population of mosques and Romanians.

Considering that Kuwaiti women only won the right to vote last year, and learned to drive not long before, the Kuwaitis - like all nations - face the same challenges of globalization that families around the world confront.

Joseph, a Sri Lankan, drives us each day to the Kuwait Petroleum Company complex where I work during this project. Since I work different hours, I'm often the only passenger on the way home in the afternoon. Recently he took the opportunity for a detour to a Catholic church nearby in Al Ahmadi. Since I'm American, he assumed I'm Christian, and since I have dark hair, he probably assumed I'm Catholic. Not a bad guess. Though I left the Catholic Church as soon as moved out from my mother's roof, I was raised tightly in its rituals for nearly 17 years. Though nearly in the majority by nationality, Joseph is acutely in the minority in this Islamic state. It touched me that he thought to take me to Church - and also prescient. Even though I no longer practice, I do try to visit a Catholic Church in every country I visit - only to pray for my mother, who is still deeply devout.